Sunday, 25 January 2015

Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan

Enter stage left: Craig and Harry. Ex-boyfriends, current best friends. Their friend Tariq follows.

Stage right: established couple Peter and Neil; new friends Avery and Ryan; lone wolf Cooper.

Eight teenaged boys; 48 hours. 48 hours in which worlds will be made and worlds will be torn apart.

Following the lives of this handful of young men over the course of just one weekend, the centre of Two Boys Kissing revolves around Craig and Harry, who are attempting to break the world record for the longest kiss, and creating quite a storm in the process. Some people are outraged that these two boys should be allowed to do such a thing in public, in front of the high school, but soon enough, they’ve also generated millions of followers on the internet and drawn supporters from all around the world.

Are Craig and Harry the centre? Or is the centre actually the narrator – or narrators? This story is not being told by the boys themselves, but by a group of watchers: the ghosts of the past. They tell the boys’ stories while telling us, quietly and poignantly, their own. At first I found this a bit strange – it took me a few chapters to get used to the juxtaposition of voices and characters, but once I did it made so much sense. Because this way, as the ghostly chorus places their pain against the relative freedoms of LGBT people today, David Levithan reminds me that the rights the LGBT community has today are absolutely brand new.

Things are a long way from being plain sailing, though. Harry’s parents are the ideal: supportive, loving, there. Craig’s parents don’t know anything – what will happen when they find out that he’s kissing a boy in front of everyone? Avery’s parents are true to him, and Peter’s too; Neil’s pretty sure his parents know he’s gay, but they can’t bring themselves to say it out loud, while Tariq is recovering from a brutal, homophobic, physical attack, and Cooper is alone, so alone and lost and ashamed.

These different boys, they are not shaped or controlled or defined by their sexual orientation; each of them is an individual, each has their own temperament and cares and concerns and interests and responses to the world and the people about them. But the way that some people respond to them shuts all of these other things out – Cooper’s father, yahoos on the street, even the radio broadcaster who launches a call-in about Craig and Harry’s record attempt. Is this really the 21st century? I don’t want to believe that there are people who still think like that, and yet I can believe it.

The chorus of voices past enables Levithan to cut away from the individual stories of our eight characters, to look upon the world from a distance, to sum up the pain and the love, to glance at the boys in love, the boys who are alone, the boys are just meeting, the boys whose parents care, and the boys whose parents hate – and then zoom in, down onto the earth and look closely, look inside our selected characters. It’s odd to think of a time when it wasn’t perfectly normal for people to be openly gay. I had forgotten (shamefully) about AIDS and about the terrible struggle that it took to get the disease recognized. And it seems completely crazy to me that it is basically only within my lifetime that any form of gay rights has been acknowledged and – even more crazy – that it’s only within the last couple of years that gay marriage has become legal.

A good friend introduced me to a technique for determining whether I was being sexually discriminated against: ask myself, would this thing have happened, or would this thing have been said if I was a guy? I think the same principal can be applied to all forms of bigotry, LGBT rights included. There is a certain amount of disgust voiced at Craig and Harry as they make their attempt for the longest kiss record – but if it was a man and woman doing it, would the response be the same? We would say it’s sweet; it’s romantic. Just because it’s two boys who are kissing doesn’t change that.

Two Boys Kissing. Yes, this is a book about being gay. The ghostly chorus, the themes, the events that take place all point toward this. But really – really – this is a book about love. Because love is the same. Love is the same whether it’s between a girl and a boy, two boys, two girls. It still feels the same. It still has the power to create and the power to destroy. Love is love, and it cannot be denied.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith

In the days after I finish reading The Alex Crow, my friends begin to get a little annoyed with me. I can’t help sniggering at what are, really, perfectly ordinary, innocent things they are saying. But in The Alex Crow there is a boy, Max, who has an imagination and a way with words that is so extraordinary, he can make practically any sentence into a metaphor for jerking off. It’s really quite astounding. So now, almost anything anyone says to me can be, well, er, "reinterpreted". And it's this, along with all the other remarkable things that take place in this story, that really makes me wonder what might be discovered should author Andrew Smith ever decide to donate his brain to science.

Four stories intertwine to make up The Alex Crow. Ariel and his adopted brother Max are at an all-boys American summer camp designed, ostensibly, as a place “Where boys rediscover the fun of boyhood!” which seems mostly to mean no electricity, cold, leaky cabins, and a series of wilderness inspired activities that Max, Ariel and their new friend Coby do their damndest to subvert as far as possible. Alongside this, Ariel tells us his backstory: a serious and heart-tearing tale of survival in a country torn apart by civil war.

But there is also the melting man: Leonard. His brain has been tampered with, causing a series of auditory and visual hallucinations that are somehow simultaneously terrifying and hilarious to read about. Lenny is driving a hideous U-haul across America looking for the mysterious Beaver King, who he plans to blow up using the atomic bomb he’s built in the back of the van. And there is a series of journal entries from the doctor of The Alex Crow, a failed Arctic expedition in 1880 which has become lodged in ice.

All of this lies against the strange and weird backdrop of the Merrie-Seymour Research Group, which runs the camp the boys are attending, and at which their father works. But what connects them to Leonard and The Alex Crow, and how did Ariel wind up in their midst? Much like Smith’s previous book, Grasshopper Jungle, the jigsaw pieces are gradually and inexorably pulled together into one shocking picture that makes you question, well, everything that Smith has told you up to that point: is Ariel really who he thinks he is? Are all of the melting man’s hallucinations really hallucinations? And is the summer camp really just a summer camp?

There are some pretty crazy things and some extremely serious things in this book, but I think what probably stands out strongest are the characters and their trueness – well, the adults are all exceedingly messed up, but the three boys are the ones on whom all of our emotions go. Andrew Smith surely writes about teenage boys in the truest way possible, from Ariel and his quiet, internal struggles to Max, who lives as loudly as he can. It’s a fucked up world that Smith’s characters are growing up in, but somehow, scarily, the crazy science that supports it feels like it could perfectly easily and unsurprisingly be real - the fucked up part are the people who chose to make these things a reality.

And then there's the part where Smith narrates with such detail and close attention it’s impossible to miss a thing – all intentions are laid out for the reader and yet the story remains intriguing, surprising, and clever. Themes of language and reality, manipulation and control, survival and extinction pulse across the pages and while it is not quite as ‘blow your mind’ as Grasshopper Jungle (how, after all, is one supposed to follow a book like that?), it undoubtedly has that intense, fucked-up feel to it’s world and it’s words. As everything begins to come together, the denouement approaches ever faster in flash of horrible realization.

Just, please, Mr. Smith, if one day you do donate your brain to science, make sure it’s not the Merrie-Seymour Research Group or any of their affiliates…

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Mine! by Jerome Keane and Susana de Bois

Exactly how artists – and writers – are able to create so much personality from such simple ideas, I really don’t know. Horse and Fox, the stars of our story, are brightly coloured, fairly blocky-looking creatures and yet the way they roll their eyes and the way they stand just tells you everything you need to know about them. In this case, they are bored. Very bored. But then something happens. Actually, something falls from the sky. But who saw it first, and who should get to play with it first?

Picture books to promote the concept of sharing are certainly nothing new, but Mine! is so bright and funny and just says it all, really! Horse and Fox ooze personality practically off the page and you can tell just where their shenanigans are headed – but this doesn’t matter one bit, because you are waiting… waiting… to see it happen.

I loved it; it’s quirky and bright and funny, and doesn’t mess around. I can’t imagine this book losing it’s edge, even over multiple readings – like Jon Klassen's  I Want My Hat Back, I think it’ll probably make you smile every time.